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Swoboda, Marian J.; Roberts, Audrey J. / They came to learn, they came to teach, they came to stay
(1980)

Marks, Elaine
Chapter 14: Germaine Bree: a partial portrait,   pp. 81-84


Page 81


14. Germaine Bree: A Partial Portrait
by Elaine Marks
Germaine Bree spent thriteen years at the University of Wisconsin-
Madison as a member of the Institute for Research in the Humanities and
Vilas Professor of French. When she accepted the offer to come to Madison
in
1960 she was already an internationally recognized critic of French literature,
a successful administrator and a beloved teacher. When she left Madison in
1973 she had become one of the best-known and most admired figures on
the campus. A persistent flow of human beings had moved towards her office
in the Old Observatory. Undergraduates had flocked to her classes, often
con-
tinuing in French only because they wanted to "take Bree." She
had directed
forty doctoral dissertations, she had participated - as a liberal, not as
a radi-
cal - in teach-ins against the war in Vietnam (over one thousand people at-
tended her talk on "Resistance and Commitment in the works of Camus
and
Sartre"), she had spoken frequently to community and university groups,
she
had continued to publish books, articles, textbooks (several in collaboration
with her graduate students; she feared neither the imputation of vulgarization
nor the inevitable rebellion of young minds), she had risen to the highest
po-
sitions on national committees, she had received many honorary degrees.
Rather than list all her achievements before, during and after her tenure
at
Wisconsin I would prefer to attempt an explanation of why, as I read many
of
the signs that accompany Germaine Bree's public and private life, these
achievements were possible.
Without venturing into psychoanalytic speculation, it may nevertheless be
suggested that Germaine Bree's will to work, that Germaine Bree's charisma
in the classroom and the public lecture hall have their source in sexual
deter-
minants. But if sexuality informs experience, it never explains quality or
uni-
queness.
Germaine Bree's stories about Germain Bre'e provide a privileged point of
view on her image of herself which sometimes coincides with and sometimes
deviates from the point of view of the outside observer. Her colleagues,
stu-
dents and friends reiterate words which describe a realm where humanist,
in-
tellectual, liberal, sceptic, mingle with generous, energetic, enthusiastic,
modest, hardworking, warm, charming and occasionally, in a corner of the
picture, austere. It is the last adjective, the one that seems to contradict
the
others, that is the most revealing because it corroborates Germaine Bree's
ambiguous but coherent discourse about herself: early to bed and early to
rise, sobriety, physical stamina, concentration, independence, privacy, a
non-
believer with a strong sense of a mission, an inside outsider, a loner, an
absentminded professor forever misplacing keys, glasses, beginning lectures
in
English and finishing them in French, boiling the coffee and ruining the
pot.
What is involved in all of these examples is distance, a distance between
the
subject and herself, between the subject and others; a refusal to cultivate
idio-
syncrasy but an ability to cope with it. One of the reasons why Germaine
Bre'e has succeeded so well in America is that she is not from here. She
had
and continues to have the additional freedom granted the foreigner, the right
to be different because she speaks a different language, or rather, in this
case,
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